The author’s quest to understand the psychology of thrill-seeking and fear.
Kerr, who holds a doctorate in sociology, seeks to explain how courting extreme experiences that challenge our fears can lead to a happier life. Her focus is not on the use of fear as a marketing device to “sell products and shape political debate” but on what fear triggers within us. Ordinarily bottled-up emotions are released, followed by an exuberant sense of exhilaration. Over the years, in her search for thrills and chills, Kerr has visited “the world's scariest haunted houses,” ridden on “its steepest roller coasters,” dangled “suspended by a cable, from one of the tallest human made structures,” experienced solitary confinement, and more. Her many adventures began with a haunted house experience at age 6 and continued with roller coasters during her adolescence. She reports how flirting with danger by challenging her body's adaptation to gravity on a two-minute roller-coaster ride evoked a cathartic state of high arousal, accompanied by screams and tears and followed by a daylong feeling of euphoria. Kerr's scientific interest was aroused years ago when she first visited ScareHouse, “a haunted attraction in Pittsburgh.” At the time, she was writing her dissertation and working on a project concerning health care. She began moonlighting at ScareHouse, analyzing customer surveys on how they rated their experiences. This led to her taking an active role in designing immersive experiences using actors who interact with visitors. Since 2014, she has been engaged in a formal collaboration with cognitive neuroscientist Greg Siegle to study the responses of the brain and body to fear. One of the tests involves brain scans that are administered to volunteers who are given tasks for them to perform before and after they visit the exhibits. As the author notes in this enjoyable account, “being scared significantly [makes] people feel better.”
Kerr frames her colorful narrative of her scientific objectives with autobiographical details of her own thrill-seeking experiences.